All About Poets #1

After many years as part of a tangible community of writers, looking back I know how fortunate I’ve been to meet many fine poets (and a few not so fine). This is the first of a series of remembrances of poets I’ve known.

Robert Creeley has a prominent place in my pantheon of poets. Is his soul aramble? There’s probably a reason why he has risen first to the top of the list. If you’re there, you are welcome, Bob.

I knew of him when I enrolled in a poetry class at St. Mary’s College near Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas. When the class first met the instructor, an anonymous man whom I remember not at all, except for his question: “Is this a poem?” And he read Creeley’s “I Know a Man.”  (You can see the poem here: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/search?query=I+Know+a+Man.)And I replied with ignorant certainty, “Sure.” But then I had to defend my belief.

To this moment it’s hard to break it down, but it looks like a poem and acts like a poem, so it’s not a duck. It’s full of ironic speech–calling the man John, who is not John, the suggestion that a car might help them live through the coming dark, and the revelation that the speaker is at that moment driving, but not well.

I can read it as metaphor–the speaker knows and wants to escape the dark, which confuses him, makes him unaware of where he is and what he’s doing. But, aha, more delightful, it puts me right into the experience of The Driver and Not John. Takes me out of my floral easy chair and into the back seat of that careening car.

Bob was a good one. In Maine we claimed his as one of our own. The Preface to his Selected Poems (University of California Press, 1991) is signed “Robert Creeley, Waldoboro, Maine, August 14, 1989.” Three times I heard him read locally, once in a hollow room where he seemed far away, though I was in the front row. That time he read poems about his family. (He claims in that preface that Robert Graves considered him a “domestic poet.”) Maybe he read “I Love You.” It’s about his Aunt Beatrice. Or “Four Years Later,” about his mother’s death. I can’t say for sure. And there was a reading at the State Theater on the corner of High and Congress Streets in Portland. I was there with Patrick Murphy, the “napkin poet” of Portland and a friend of Bob’s. Creeley looked up to  our back row seats and said, “Pat, can you hear me up there?” I was proud to be at least in the penumbra of Bob’s vision.

Another time he read at an art gallery on Munjoy Hill, poems about Helsinki and his then current wife. It was a crowded venue with wine after. Bob and I sat under a table and talked about a line of his, which I was, he said, misinterpreting. He smiled as he said that. I remember the smile, though not the line. 

My Creeley connection had actually started in the fall of 1984 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. My friend and co-author Beverly Rainbolt and I went to a poetry conference at the university, star struck. We breathed the same air as Creeley, Denise Levertov, Gerald Stern, Louis Simpson and Charles Bernstein. Our real goal, in addition to breathing along with the talent, was to put a copy of our joint chapbook, Visible Progress, into Creeley’s hands. We tracked our prey to the sidewalk between readings and scored a direct hit. He was polite and accepted the “gift” that we forced on him. And after that conference Beverly and I went back to our weird work at the arts center we had created in an old warehouse in Shreveport.

Within a couple of weeks came a brief letter from Creeley praising our work, and signing off with his customary “Onward!” I have that letter and the envelope framed and hanging on my wall. Some time afterward I left Shreveport to return to Maine and Beverly moved to New Orleans, and that was that.

(See you soon with a piece about Lucille Clifton.)

Stuck? Go with it!

No one I know proceeds through a writing project without the occasional stutter step. Sometimes I fall, not from grace, but a face plant. Dry docked, shut down, blocked. Ouch! And that’s just the day that some skeptic asks how the book is selling, or when I’m doing a public reading. All I can do is shrug and own my stalled “career.” It’s momentarily embarrassing, a suggestion that, as my inner critic sometimes reminds me, I’m not really a writer. A real writer has an agent, an editor, a PR person, and a house on a hill. So what am I doing living in a basement apartment (which I actually like) and counting my dimes and dollars?

This angst is part of creative writing, as opposed to the popular image of authorship. My “ship” is a dinghy dragged up on the shore until I push it back into the water and take up the oars again. And row, maybe with no destination but an intent to go where the tide takes me. Just see what’s there and enjoy the sun and the breeze. It’s not a lost day if all I do is journal, muse on paper. (Hmm, that sounds like a line for a poem, or a new sandwich.)

If you too get stuck, just go with it. You might need a break, but I doubt you’re broken.

This One’s for the Birds

The workshop at Columbine Poets of Colorado today featured poems in honor of The Year of the Bird. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, a conservation measure prohibiting the “pursuit, hunt, take, capture, kill or sale” of migratory birds in the US.

It has nothing but coincidence to do with the fact that this week I started circulating a poetry manuscript titled The Gift Bird. I will, however welcome whatever synchronicity ensues. I’ve become more and more fascinated by birds and I have many, many poems that refer to birds. In honor of all this avian coincidence, I offer you a list of some of my favorite books about birds.

Ackerman, Jennifer. The Genius of Birds

Barnes, Simon. How to Be a Bad Bird Watcher

Barnes, Simon. The Meaning of Birds

Cocker, Mark. Birders: Memoirs of a Tribe

Leck, David. The Life of a Robin

Lorenz, Konrad. King Soloman’s Ring

Moss, Stephen. A Bird in the Bush: A Social History of Bird Watching

Nicolson, Adam. The Seabird’s Cry

Peattie, Donald Culrose, Ed. A Gathering of Birds: An Anthology of the Best Ornithological Prose

Rothenberg, David. Why Birds Sing

Tudge, Colin. The Bird: A Natural History of Who Birds Are, Where They Came From, and How They Live

Young, Jon. What the Robin Knows

For the Love of Libraries

I carry a wallet full of library cards. You never know when you’ll need a book. My libraries include Anythink Wright Farms, in Thornton, Colorado. I’m there most Mondays when they open at 9:30. I was there yesterday; that’s how I start my work week. And there’s no predicting what might be going on. Yesterday, having coffee with my friend at the library cafe–yes, in the library there’s a cafe–and my librarian friend, Laura, came to say hello and tell us that there were goats out in the playground. Yes, this library has a huge playground adjacent to the children’s room. And there were goats! I love goats. The cover art on one of my poetry books, Two Gun Lil, features me as a child with a goat under my arm.

My first library was in Harmony, RI, a single room behind the fire station. This small but mighty place had an important effect on me. I cannot imagine my life without books in an almost limitless supply. Soon I’ll tuck another library card into my wallet for my annual trip to Maine, where I’ll visit the Berry Memorial Library in Bar Mills. I hold card number 345. It’s a small town.

This afternoon I’ll go back to Anythink to see “Birds of Prey with HawkQuest.” I’m crazy for raptors and welcome the chance to see them up close. Up close and live will be an owl, eagle, falcon, hawk. In a library! A few weeks ago there were baby chicks in a heated tub. Thursday evening I’ll be there again to hear Colorado’s Poet Laureate, Joseph Hutchison read from his newest book, Eyes of the Cuervo/Ojos del Crow.

I’ve said it before, but it’s important: Ben Franklin gave the USA a marvelous gift, although libraries have changed their services over the years since he hired a librarian to care for books that Ben and friends shared. Patience and Fortitude, the marble lions, still sit in front of the NY Public, mecca of sorts. I think of them often, take comfort that they endure. If you haven’t been to a library this week, go. It will do you good.

What Next?

Contemplating my to-do list: get ready to sign books on Saturday, send out poems, shop for a birthday gift for my most amazing daughter (one of two best things I’ve ever done, her brother being the other), lunch today and tomorrow with good friends, a committee meeting tonight tacked onto the one from yesterday, and celebrate the freedom I have to do these things. On days when my list is long and I try to hide behind the solitaire screen, I could, instead, get up and get going. Time will not stop, so why do I?

Writing a new poem, building a lesson plan, revising what resists revision, these are privileges not given to everyone. And, yes, I must honor my commitment to my chosen calling, but sometimes I am so afraid of not living up to the traditions of authorship that I stall and have to force my fingers to the keyboard or pen to paper.

What others see is the product of my determination. They don’t see the hesitation, the doubt or anxiety. Those I edit from my public persona, but many of you who read this will recognize the feeling. And the need to tell that weary self-critic to “Hush, just hush. I’ve got work to do, work that I love and honor.” May you too on this no-particular morning, get something done and reward yourself with a “Well done,” even if what you do is imperfect.

 

A Plan in January

So, last blog I said I would this week reveal my writing plan for the future. First, regarding the future, Fate is in charge. What I intend, though, is this: I’m rejoining my tribe, poets, and now my mornings pages are full of old words and new insights. I’m mining for prompts two books, Tremor by Adam Zagajewski and The Notebook by José Saramago. The first is poetry, the second a collection of blog posts by a Nobel Prize winner from Portugal. I need their ideas, images, vocabulary and syntax now to be of use in a ragged world.They lead me deeper into dark and difficult places, but I manage to come out of those caves (think Plato) with sharper sight, or so it feels. Maybe I’ve mentioned a hundred times that I admire depth as well as the other joys of poetry.

Poetry should be of use, not to preach, but to connect the writer and the reader to a shared world. Ten years ago or so I took a weeklong workshop at Naropa University with poet Allison Hedge Coke. Her assignment was to put art in service to a cause. At that time my cause was our endangered food supply. I was fired up by the writing of Michael Pollan, Barbara Kingsolver, and others who highlighted the risks of taking food for granted. The result was my poetry book The Great Hunger, or in Irish An Gorta Mor. (No, I don’t speak Irish; a generous student in Galway once tried to teach me, but this short-stay visitor did not learn much Irish.)

Over coffee yesterday, I talked with Jared Smith, an excellent and experienced poet, about reconnecting to poets. He encouraged me and suggested what to read, where to go, who to know or know about. I’m also involved in writing News Poetry for Colorado Independent, a progressive online newspaper. And I have widened the lens of current events to include concerns over climate, homelessness, and racial inequality. The news is full of inhumanity and I don’t plan to preach–preaching is not the same as poetry–but I mean to put my words in service to the sad unfairness of the world and find some peace in the making of poems.

2017 in Review

This weekend many of us will look over our shoulders and see what’s behind us, not what’s stalking us, but what we have accomplished, other than staying alive. Mostly, I think of the work I’ve done. Keeping a positive attitude so that I don’t shred myself to tatters over what’s left undone. So, let’s see what I have accomplished:

Finished and launched a third novel, Invisible Juan; had eight poems published in a variety of venues; coached an enduring group of eight other writers; maintained my poetry output with the help of a weekly critique group (thanks, Gamuts); led a workshop or two, one for the News Writers of the Colorado Independent; participated as an invited guest in the seasonal poetry reading at the Loveland CO Museum; read more good books than I can list; posted a few reviews on Goodreads; wrote regularly with two groups of friends, one the Free Writers, the other a women’s group; maintained this weekly blog; had Providence reviewed in Publishers Weekly; spent many productive hours in libraries and coffee shops with my pen in hand; started yet another novel (what am I thinking?) and met regularly with my climate fiction partner to share ideas and information on writing and publishing.

Thanks to my followers for sticking with me here, on FaceBook, and on Twitter. I’ve learned from you, taken your presence as encouragement, and your discernment as a measure of my skills. Feel free to jump in here and let me know how your year of writing has gone. Next week, let’s set some goals for 2018. HAPPY NEW YEAR.